July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
“WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS…”
On July 4, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress brought a new nation into the world by adopting the Declaration of Independence. The drama had begun on June 7, when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution calling for the colonies to sever themselves from Great Britain. A divided Congress left the question open but appointed a committee to prepare a declaration. On July 2 the Congress made the momentous and irrevocable decision to declare independence, and two days later, after making a few changes, it adopted the committee’s text, which had been written mostly by Thomas Jefferson.
The Declaration is at once a bold pronouncement and a humble apology, mixing combative words like “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” and “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government” with emollients like “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” “Prudence, indeed, will dictate,” and “the patient sufferance of these Colonies.” This balancing act was made necessary by the Declaration’s multiple purposes. Abroad, America needed to justify its boldness to foreign rulers, from whom the infant country hoped to attract aid and recognition, without making them sit uneasily on their own thrones. At home, the Congress needed to rally citizens behind the cause of self-rule without encouraging them to split up again when the first dispute arose.
For these reasons, the true soul of the Declaration of Independence lies not in the elegant passages at the beginning and end but in the middle portion’s mundane bill of particulars. By listing in exhaustive detail the depredations of King George III and stressing the patience with which the colonists had borne them, the Congress hoped to discourage other rebels from acting too precipitately. Unfortunately, in years since, Jefferson’s rousing phrases about unalienable rights and self-evident truths have proved timeless, while the catalogue of injustices has been all too easy to ignore. If the Declaration of Independence is, to quote the title of Pauline Maier’s recent book, “American scripture,” then the list of offenses is the begats. The result, much too often, has been that revolutionaries at home and abroad have tried to overthrow governments without carefully weighing their grievances and exhausting their forbearance.